The much overused word ‘journey’ has been pivotal to what has happened here at Broadsheet since we ran a small news piece on reaction to the legalisation of horse meat for human consumption in Australia. We were overwhelmed at the response both for and against this practice and the differing reasons why people opposed it or supported it.

The initial complaint, and motivation for this piece, was regarding the incorrect use of the word ‘rearing’. It was a good starting point, and has lead to conversations with people in Perth, Melbourne and over in Ireland (hence the ‘journey’) and opened our eyes to a fascinating, often-abhorred subject.

We have found that many who support the sale and consumption of horse meat are of European background where the meat is enjoyed on a regular basis, particularly in France, Italy, Belgium and Russia. They enjoy eating meat or are simply curious about trying different kinds of food, no matter where it’s from.

Protest at the sale and consumption of horse meat in Australia is driven by different schools of thought. There are animal activists who would defend their right to protest the consumption of horse meat in restaurants, which Nicolas Poeleart experienced at his Carlton restaurant Embrasse in July. They consider the slaughter of horses for meat as a ‘disposal method’, not about food but about getting rid of the beast when a life had reached its end.

Then there are those who protest the safety of the meat for humans to eat. It was this argument, in particular, that encouraged us to follow-up.

Horse meat is used in pet food; this has been a given for a long time. Retired racehorses – usually full of antibiotics and medicines from their racing career – are often used for this meat and slaughtered in a knackery, where there are few health regulations to adhere to. Given this, concerns about horse meat for human consumption have been raised, questioning where the horse meat comes from and how safe it is for humans. We know that many people refuse to eat intensively farmed chickens due to their being fed growth hormones; similarly, it is reasonable for the consumer to question what exactly is in the horse meat that can be sold to them.

There was also some talk that the export of horse meat from Australia to the EU had been given the red light due to lack of industry regulation. With such a large number of horses slaughtered in Australia each year (around 40,000) we contacted the EU Commission Services who handle these matters to confirm whether or not it is true.

The reply stated that it boiled down to a treatment issue. Had the animals been treated with steroids or not, and if so, had the meat been identified as ineligible for food? As there is no system to regulate this, an affidavit must now be signed by all horse owners who are selling their horsemeat for human consumption. The affidavit must declare that the animal has not been treated with a specific list of substances.

So, horses are still accepted into Europe from Australia for human consumption but they are not ‘reared’ here for the specific purpose and in the context used previously on Broadsheet.

Vince Garreffa of Mondo Butchers in Perth, WA, is the only Australian butcher who has been granted a license to sell horse meat to his customers for them to eat, filling a small demand for horse meat sales. “I have slaughtered three horses so far, and another three soon, probably,” he tells us.

When addressing issues of contaminants in the horse’s system, Garreffa stated that none of the horses he has sold for human consumption were formerly racehorses. “They are WA horses that I pay good money for, so I can pick and choose the animal and fill the requirements of the Health Department following Federal guidelines, not Western Australian guidelines.” This includes information on where the horse was born, how it has been raised and if there have been any drugs put in the animal’s system.

This is a push-and-pull subject that seems to polarise many people. The emotional connection many have with horses makes their disdain of horse meat consumption understandable. On the other hand, the idea of eating an animal, to many meat eaters at least, is completely acceptable, particularly when it is one that is eaten in other cultures and its production is monitored and legal here.

Conversations and protests about this subject will not stop, but in an attempt to shed light on the subject of horse meat consumption in Australia we are quietly grateful that the misuse of a word taught us a lot about our food chain.